Using Marginal Lands for Biofuels

Assessment shows Midwest could support biomass production while benefiting climate.

Image courtesy of Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Gelfand, I., et al. “Sustainable bioenergy production from marginal lands in the U.S. Midwest.” Nature 493(7433), 514–517 copyright (2013).
Potential biomass collection areas for cellulosic biorefineries within 10 Midwest states. Each circle represents an area of 80-km radius with sufficient biomass resources to produce at least 89 Ml of cellulosic ethanol per year, according to quantitative simulation of yields from fertilized successional vegetation on non-forested marginal lands at a resolution of 60 m × 60 m. County-scale totals of marginal lands biomass production are shown in green.

The Science

Growing plants on marginal lands, or lands unsuitable for conventional agricultural crops, is a promising route for attaining sufficient cellulosic biomass to produce biofuels without compromising food crops. However, uncertainties remain regarding both the availability of such lands and the potential environmental impacts (e.g., greenhouse gas emissions) resulting from widespread production of biofuel crops.

The Impact

An assessment by the Department of Energy’s Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) shows that if properly managed, marginal lands could provide sufficient biomass to support a viable cellulosic biofuel production industry while benefiting conservation efforts and the environment.


GLBRC researchers have conducted the first assessment of the total biomass potential of unmanaged lands, which includes an estimate of greenhouse gas benefits. Using 20 years of data from 10 Midwest states, the researchers compared both productivity and greenhouse gas impacts of several potential biofuel feedstocks, including corn, poplar, alfalfa, and old field vegetation. They then used supercomputers to model the biomass production required to support local biorefineries.


I. Gelfand
Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, Michigan State University
East Lansing, Michigan 48824

W.K. Kellogg
Biological Station, Michigan State University
Hickory Corners, MI 49060


Support for this work was provided by the DOE Office of Science Biological and Environmental Research program (DE-FC02-07ER64494, KP1601050) and Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (DE-AC05-76RL01830, OBP 20469-19145), the U.S. National Science Foundation’s LTER program (DEB 1027253), NASA (NNH08ZDA001N), and AgBioResearch at Michigan State University


Gelfand, I., et al. “Sustainable bioenergy production from marginal lands in the U.S. Midwest.” Nature 493 (7433), 514–517(2013). [DOI: 10.1038/nature11811].

Highlight Categories

Program: BER , BRCs , BSSD

Performer: University , DOE Laboratory